Kids in Adult Prisons - August 27, 2001 "But in fact,the rash of new legislation came largely after crack and after violent-crime rates among teenagers began plummeting. As a result, the last decade has seen less and less teenage violence but more and more teens sent to adult jails and prisons across the country."  Thank you to everyone who fought hard to help 14 year-old Lionel Tate escape America's draconian fate of being sent to an adult prison....see below. Sherry Swiney
American Prospect, Volume 12, Issue 15. |  August 27, 2001
Hard-Time Kids
by Sasha Abramsky An international outcry arose last winter when the state of Florida tried 14-year-old Lionel Tate as an adult and sentenced the boy to life in prison for killing a playmate two years earlier during what Lionel said was a mock wrestling game. Within days of his sentencing--with the photograph of his chubby, tear-stained face etched into the national consciousness--Lionel was moved from an adult prison to a juvenile facility. A clutch of high-powered appellate attorneys, led by the inimitable Johnnie Cochran and Barry Scheck, had taken up the case. And Florida Governor Jeb Bush was letting it be known that he might be amenable to eventually signing some sort of clemency deal in this unusual situation.

But in fact, Lionel Tate's case was not so exceptional. In recent years, 47 states and the District of Columbia have revamped their juvenile justice systems either to require that certain crimes be tried in adult court or to give prosecutors (instead of juvenile court judges) the discretion to try minors as adults. Such changes mean that juveniles are increasingly being tried in adult courts and given adult sentences--often to be served, as Lionel Tate's was supposed to be, in adult prisons.

Legislators and prosecutors are presumably aware that brutality is common in these prisons and that they have no specialized rehabilitative programs like those that juvenile facilities are supposed to provide. Nonetheless, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), there are only two states--California and North Dakota--that still prohibit the incarceration of children under the age of 16 in adult facilities. Only six states require that inmates under 18 be housed in separate units from the adult prison population.

The Superpredator Myth The get-tough movement supposedly was driven by the terrifying surge of juvenile violence that spiked toward the end of the crack epidemic between 1991 and 1993. Politicians claimed that a hard-time approach was the only way to deal with the specter of unredeemable juvenile "superpredators," as they were called by sociologist John DiIulio (who is now in charge of President George W. Bush's faith-based charity initiative). But in fact, the rash of new legislation came largely after crack and after violent-crime rates among teenagers began plummeting. As a result, the last decade has seen less and less teenage violence but more and more teens sent to adult jails and prisons across the country.

Nationally, the BJS estimates, some 7,400 teens under the age of 18 were admitted to state prisons in 1997, the last year for which such statistics have been compiled. This was up from 3,400 admissions in 1985. In 1997, the agency reports, 33 adolescents were sentenced to adult prison for every thousand arrested for violent crimes, up from 18 per thousand arrested in 1985. And these sentences were not to be quick, scare-'em-straight experiences. On average, minors convicted of violent crimes were expected to serve a minimum of five years in adult prison. In addition, nearly 10,000 minors were held in adult jails for some period in 1997.

Atiba Farquharson, a 17-year-old from a poor black neighborhood in Miami, was sentenced as an adult three years ago for robbing a gas station with a friend and shooting the attendant in the arm. Clearly Atiba, who had been sticking up local dope dealers and businesses for several years by then, needed to be removed from society. But if he was ever going to change, the disturbed, hyperactive teenager, who had been on Prozac for years, also needed intensive counseling, a structured education, and a sense of hope. In adult prison, he's gotten none of that.

At the Zephyr Hills Correctional Institution, 20 miles north of Tampa, prison authorities send Atiba to work raking leaves and mowing grass on the compound. He is not required to enroll in school, as is standard practice in juvenile facilities. He's been in and out of prison psychiatric wards over these three years, but there he's been medicated, not counseled. Oftentimes, when his temper gets the better of him, he fights or cusses out the guards and as a punishment then spends weeks in isolation in the wing of the prison that inmates call "the box." Unlike juvenile facilities, at Zephyr Hills there are no legal limits on the amount of time a kid can be confined in these physically and psychologically destructive isolation cells.

To be sure, the country's overburdened and often malfunctioning juvenile justice systems can fall well short of their goals. But the point is, the new, hard-time approach to juvenile crime does not even attempt to achieve these goals.

"In prison," Atiba says, "I ain't really get no education. I get my learning from inmates. When I was on the street, I couldn't read well or write; only thing I was good at was math. In prison, I learned to read and write. I learned from different inmates." The problem is that in addition to the three Rs, Atiba--whose parents were drug addicts and who learned to rob and steal before he was 10 years old while living in a two-bedroom house with his grandmother, his aunt and her several children, his uncle's family, and his own brothers and sisters--is also being taught the ethos of the street. "Prison's like a school and a gladiator prison," he explains, sitting in his blue uniform in an interview room at Zephyr Hills. "It's bad, because you've got to watch your back or you'll be killed in here. I've got beaten lots of times." One time, when he was 16, he says, an officer slammed his head against a Plexiglas window. Another time, at a different institution, a rival stabbed him in the chest with a shank. Inmates wielding socks filled with metal padlocks have hit friends of his over the head. "You're surrounded by different types of criminals," the teenager says. "People who know how to burgle houses, rob banks. You've got rapists here. Murderers. Young people, some don't have the mind I do. They'll listen to the older inmate: 'This is how you do a robbery.' He might go out there and try it again. He might get away, or he might end up dead or back in here."

Atiba is scheduled to be released sometime next year. He will be barely 19 years old; he will lack a high school education; and he will have an inexpungible adult felony record and only the most dysfunctional of families to turn to for support. His father, the one relative who has kept in regular contact with him, is terminally ill with brain cancer. Atiba talks of wanting to study medicine or psychiatry if he can ever get his high-school-equivalency diploma. But according to the grim statistics for teenagers who have spent time in adult prison, it's far more likely that he will return to the Florida penal system not long after he is released.

  Lunch-Money Felon So far Florida has taken "adult time for adult crime" further than any other state. Following a rash of high-profile teen crimes in 1992, Janet Reno, then serving as the state attorney for Miami-Dade County, began pushing for more adult-court filings against violent juveniles. And in 1994, after gun-toting teenagers murdered several tourists, the state legislature gave prosecutors (rather than juvenile judges) the deciding hand as to whether to charge kids 14 and older as adults. By the late 1990s, Palm Beach County prosecutor Barry E. Krischer was trying 15-year-old Anthony Laster in adult court for allegedly stealing lunch money from a schoolmate. "Depicting and treating this forcible felony, this strong-arm robbery, in terms as though it were no more than a $2 shoplifting fosters and promotes violence in our schools," Krischer wrote in a February 1999 op-ed. "There should be 'zero tolerance' for such acts. I believe that prosecuting this robbery in juvenile court would have diminished the seriousness of the crime."

Professor Paolo G. Annino of the Children's Advocacy Center at Florida State University College of Law estimates that on any given day nearly 500 minors are now incarcerated in Florida's prisons. There are, he says, more than 1,000 Florida inmates presently serving time in prison for crimes committed when they were 15 or younger. All told, according to University of Minnesota law professor Barry Feld (a former prosecutor and the author of Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court), some 70,000 teens have gone through Florida's adult courts in the last decade. Thousands of these juveniles have ended up in adult prison. Thousands more have been sent to adult probation programs, where they are provided with far less supervision than they would have been under the state's juvenile probation system. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice reports that between 1998 and 1999 the average caseload of juvenile probation officers was 45; in the adult system it was 78. For high-risk offenders, average caseloads were 15 to 1 in the juvenile system and 25 to 1 in the adult system. Not surprisingly, youths in the adult system fail probation more often. And for violating adult probation, they are sent to adult prison.

In addition to those serving time in the general prison population, thousands of juveniles tried as adults in Florida over the last decade have been sentenced to serve time in age-segregated prisons known as "youthful offender" institutions, or YOs. These are adult maximum-security facilities in which all inmates are under the age of 26. Apart from that, however--down to the razor-wire fencing, the uniformed guards, and the stunningly casual violence--the YOs are indistinguishable from adult prisons. And there--so much for age segregation--15-year-old muggers can be made to share a cell with killers in their twenties.

Brevard Correctional Institution and Work Camp, 20 minutes from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, is one of these youthful-offender institutions. It houses more than a thousand youths, the majority of them blacks or Latinos from poor parts of Miami and other large Florida cities. Their crimes range from drug violations to murder.

"I robbed," says 17-year-old Ernest Causey, who has been in YOs since he was convicted of armed robbery at the age of 14, "because I ain't seen no other alternative. I went out there and did what I hadda do." Mostly, Ernest says, the profits from the robberies he carried out when he was 12 and 13 went to buy clothes. But sometimes, he says, he gave his mother money so she could pay the rent. It seemed normal. Most of his friends, he recalls, were in and out of juvenile facilities, jail, and prison. Now he thinks that his years running with the tough crowd were good preparation for his life behind bars. Brevard, says Ernest, "is really no different from the street. Just no guns. You've still got knives. You've still got drugs. When you go to sleep, you've got to keep one eye open, be prepared. You don't know who's gonna take you to the bathroom and rape you. It's real dangerous."

Inmates at Brevard walk around the yard in blue uniforms with youthful versions of the blank "prison stare." They have the option to enroll in high-school-equivalency programs, but there is no mandatory school regimen. Mainly they spend their time in prison jobs or playing games with their friends. At night they sleep in dormitories divided into double rooms and are prey to violent attack. Often teenage prisoners are confined with a cellmate all day for days at a time. "Every roommate I got, I beat him up," says 16-year-old Enrique Esquerre, whose family moved to Florida from Peru nine years ago. He was imprisoned at 14 after using what he says was an unloaded .357 Magnum to rob a liquor store. "I did 59 days in confinement one time because I got an assault charge after hitting my roommate lots of times. Bruised him up." Brevard provides little counseling, and the inmates' relationship to prison staff is extremely antagonistic. "Gunning" at female  officers--an obscene prison sport in which inmates masturbate at passing guards--simply earns the offender 30 days in isolation. Inmates report that guards routinely resort to physical force and gas to subdue them. "When they gas you," says Enrique, "you can't breathe. It goes in your pores. You can't see. I got used to it after the third time. I just got sprayed every day." Ernest Causey remembers one guard slamming his right hand in a heavy door during a dispute. His palm still bears a jagged scar where 12 stitches closed the wound. "It makes you feel like shit," he says. "Like the lowest of the low. If the officer don't like you, he spit in your food. Yeah, it make you angry!"

Ernest hopes he won't have to resort to crime when he is released. But "if I do have to go back to what I was doing and the police come," he explains slowly, deliberately--a lanky kid talking with an adolescent combination of awkwardness and bravado--"it'll be me or them. I'll kill them. I won't come back here. If I do have to, they're going to have to kill me."

Youngsters in prison face daunting odds. Although they generally  do not spend longer inside than kids convicted of similar crimes who are sent to juvenile facilities, government statistics show that those sent to adult prisons are more likely to be raped or beaten (in Florida a 17-year-old was strangled to death by an adult prisoner in 1997); they are more likely to attempt suicide; they are less likely to receive education or skills training. And according to recent research, they are more likely to return to crime upon their release.

In 1996 a research team led by Donna M. Bishop, then a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at the University of Central Florida, compared two groups of Florida teenagers matched for similar backgrounds and similar crimes. The study found that the teens who were processed through the adult courts returned to crime sooner, committed more crimes, committed more serious crimes, and ended up back behind bars sooner than did their peers who went through the juvenile system. In a four-year follow-up study, the team found that minors tried as adults for one specific category of property crimes reoffended less often than their counterparts who had been sent to juvenile court, but in every other instance and by every other measure, the researchers' early results were confirmed over the longer term. "On the face of it," says Bishop, now at Northeastern University in Boston, "these are kids who look very similar. And yet the  transferred youth [those sent through the adult system] reoffended at a higher incidence." Possibly all this shows is that the prosecutors were making good judgment calls in picking out the worst of the bad apples to prosecute as adults in the first place. But Bishop says her team found no evidence of this. Instead, they identified a pattern of prison living conditions--and of relationships with prison guards--that helped to cement a teenager's criminal identity.

A 1995 study by Jeffrey Fagan, who directs the Center for Violence Research and Prevention at Columbia University's School of Public Health, compared a matched sample of New Jersey teenagers handled in the juvenile courts with New York teenagers tried as adults. It similarly found that the kids dealt with in adult court reoffended as often or more often than those sent through the juvenile courts.

 Indeed, as far back as the early 1980s experts were decrying New York's 1978 law, which defined 16-years-olds as adults for criminal justice purposes. The research then, as now, suggested that the new law would be counterproductive. Adult prison seems to be a criminogenic toxin to adolescents--one that leads in the long run not to less crime but to more.

"These kids come from backgrounds of family dysfunction, mental illness, a whole host of things. They need appropriate intervention," says Steve Harper, a Miami public defender. "Most of the teenagers are going to get out [of prison]. They went in damaged. The damage isn't addressed. It's worsened because they're in a tough place." Harper remembers a mentally ill teenager he represented a decade ago who was sent to prison rather than to a secure mental institution. Following his release, he killed someone.

Says James Milliken, the chief judge in the San Diego juvenile court system: "I can't help but think [that those sent to prison as minors] will be far more of a risk when they're released than the population of ex-cons who went to prison as adults."

Reforming Reform

Last year voters in California continued the get-tough onslaught by passing Proposition 21. The measure allows prosecutors to bring adult charges against teenagers arrested for relatively minor property and drug crimes. It also lowers the age at which teenagers can begin accumulating the "strikes" that could ultimately result in a life sentence under the state's "three strikes and you're out" law. And Prop 21 drastically increases the sanctions for crimes carried out by gang members. Because local police departments have spent years building secret computer databases containing the names of tens of thousands of alleged gang members--"identified" by signs as trivial as wearing certain clothing, hanging out with known gang members, using gang hand signs, or gathering with three or more friends in a public space--this provision alone poses important civil-liberty problems.

But Proposition 21 may, paradoxically, prove to be the turning point in juvenile justice policy. It has already aroused organized political opposition--including among inner-city youths like 17-year-old Maria Perez of South Central Los Angeles's Youth United for Community Action. "Here," she says, "you're guilty until proven innocent. I'm walking down the street and they can stop me because of the way I'm dressed. Me, a straight-A student. Because of my pants, my makeup. Let's say I'm 15 or 17 and commit a crime. That record's going to stay. Let's say I'm 19 or 21 and want to improve myself; that record's going to stay. They check your record even when you apply for a job at McDonald's. I'm going to just keep going back to jail." Even many big-city prosecutors find Prop 21 excessive. "It wasn't reform," says Steve Cooley, Los Angeles's newly elected district attorney. "It was a power grab by police and prosecutors. It's a reaction to violent juvenile crime. People take that fear and try and capitalize on it and end up with things like Prop 21. Bad lawmaking. An exploitation of people's legitimate fears."   A recent court ruling, in response to a lawsuit filed by the parents of several white San Diego teenagers charged as adults for beating elderly Mexican migrant laborers, has blocked the discretionary aspects of Proposition 21. And that, combined with the hostility of prosecutors such as Cooley and public attention to the Lionel Tate case in Florida, just may provide a chance to open a debate over the use of adult courts and prisons to punish and control difficult, sometimes dangerous teenagers.

For two crucial reasons, the country must take advantage of this opportunity. The first is sheer self-interest. Current policies risk creating thousands of extremely maladjusted, crime-prone adults. The second reason has more to do with our sense of justice as a nation--for current policies are prematurely condemning as unredeemable enormous and disproportionate numbers of inner-city black and Latino youngsters.

A recent report by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a progressive watchdog organization, found that in Chicago's Cook County 99 percent of juveniles tried in adult court for drug crimes in 1999 and 2000 were black or Latino, although 15 percent of juveniles arrested for drug crimes in Cook County were white. In Los Angeles County, JPI found, Hispanic and black youths were transferred to adult court at six times the rate of whites and, once there, were far more likely to be sentenced to adult prison than their white peers. In Florida three-quarters of the teens in adult prison (both general-population facilities and YOs) are nonwhite. "The harsh attitudes toward kids right now in the United States," argues JPI researcher Dan Macallair, "is a harsh attitude to  black and Latino kids. Those other  kids." Kids like Taylor Maxie, Jr., in Los Angeles, who was given a second chance under the old juvenile-justice system that he wouldn't have had in the adult system. And just when he might have looked most unredeemable, he took that chance.

Maxie was 18 when a rival gang member shot him five times while he was out walking. Viewing his survival as practically amiracle, he figured it was a message that he should start afresh. He took on a new name, Johnny Tremain, and contacted a young artist named Chris Henrickson, who runs an intervention program for juvenile delinquents called DreamYard. Maxie and Henrickson had met a couple of years before, when the gangbanger was serving time in a juvenile facility where Henrickson was running a poetry workshop. Under Henrickson's guidance, Maxie had begun writing prose and discovering the intellectual side of his personality; and while he hadn't initially heeded Henrickson's advice to stay away from the gang life, he had those resources to fall back on when he was ready to try.

"It's a very hard thing to make that transition," Tremain recalls, sitting in an office at the film company in downtown Los Angeles where he now works. "I had to change everything, down to the way I talked to people. A lot of shit. I moved, stopped coming in contact with the police, cut off communication with a lot of my friends." Henrickson helped. He got Tremain a job as an outreach associate at DreamYard and made himself available for a talk whenever Tremain felt that he was slipping back. Now, four years later, the 22-year-old former gang member has a girlfriend, a young daughter, and a stable job. If he hadn't met someone like Henrickson, "I'd probably still be out there with a ski mask on, trying to rob somebody," he says matter-of-factly.

But "second chance" is no longer popular rhetoric. We are a country reeling under a changing definition of childhood, shifting views about redemption and rehabilitative potential, and an increasingly pre-Enlightenment notion of punishment as an emotional catharsis for victims and an automatic response to violations of the moral code. The public perception that crazed, Uzi-toting teens are roaming the countryside seems to remain in place despite the facts. And because adolescent murderers are relatively uncommon, whereas adolescent robbers, burglars, car thieves, and vandals are far more prevalent, it is these less serious offenders who have ended up bearing the brutal brunt of the laws we've changed. They are the ones treated as hopeless under the new hard-time model. For reasons of justice, that's a criminal mistake.                           Sasha Abramsky  
Copyright © 2001 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Sasha Abramsky, "Hard-Time Kids," The American Prospect vol. 12 no. 15, August 27, 2001 . This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to